Alexander Graham Bell
Inventor of the Telephone
He received most of his early education from his parents and, starting at age 15, was trained by his grandfather, a prominent speech tutor in London. In 1867 he became an assistant to his father, who had invented a phonetic visible speech system for teaching the deaf to speak.
The Bell family moved to Brantford, in Ontario, Canada, in 1870 to help Alexander recuperate from the shock of his two brothers’ deaths from tuberculosis. The following year, Bell moved to Boston and began demonstrating his father’s speech method to teachers of the deaf. He became professor of vocal physiology at Boston University in 1873.
Bell befriended Thomas Watson, a repair mechanic, and with funds provided by the families of two of Bell’s deaf students, Bell and Watson began long nightly research sessions aimed at devising an electrical means of transmitting sound. In 1874 Bell obtained a patent for a telegraph that could send more than one message over a single wire simultaneously.
Watson and Bell continued their efforts to develop electrical sound transmission. On March 10, 1876, Bell shouted the now famous words—”Mr. Watson, come here; I want you”—when he spilled add on his clothes; the words were relayed from Bell’s lab transmitter to Watson’s receiver in another room. By the end of the year, Bell had sent a spoken message over a distance of 229 kilometers and had been granted a patent for the telephone. The patent covered the method and devices (microphone and loudspeaker) for transmitting vocal and other sounds via electrical undulations similar to the vibrations in air that accompany such sounds. A prototype of Bell’s telephone earned the gold medal at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia that same year, and the telephone system spread quickly across the United States and Europe.
Bell spent the rest of his life developing an extremely diverse collection of instruments and conducting varied technological and biological research. He invented a device that locates metallic objects within the human body, an aircooling system, the forerunner of the iron lung, a card sorting machine, a hydrofoil boat, and various sound transmitting instruments that he hoped would help the deaf, including his wife Mabel. His studies and experimental activities also involved sonar detection, flying machines, the physiology of hearing and speech, and sheep breeding.
He received numerous awards during his life, helped found the journal Science in 1883, and served as the president of the National Geographic Society from 1898 to 1903. He died on August 2, 1922, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Alexander Graham Bell’s Legacy
Bell’s telephone changed the lives of people in industrialized countries by allowing immediate communication between distant places.
Early telephone systems were limited and required an operator to connect every call. In 1889, Almon B. Strowger invented the automatic exchange switchboard. In modern systems computers connect calls. Rapid intercontinental communications relied for decades on expensive and short lived telegraph cables laid on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Development of durable telecommunications satellites in the 1960s made instant global communications feasible and affordable. Recent technological advances include facsimiles (fax machines), cellular phones, modems, and video conferencing, all of which improved global communication and information exchange.
Bell’s lesser known achievements were also influential. His promotion of the visible speech method for teaching the deaf to speak led to the method’s widespread use. It improved the lives of the deaf by enabling them to communicate more easily with hearing people.
The journal Science, founded with Bell’s help, has become one of the world’s most prominent peer reviewed scientific journals. It publishes news and research from all fields of science.
As president of the National Geographic Society, Bell guided the transformation of the society’s simple pamphlet into an educational journal that illustrates and describes life in distant areas of the world to millions of readers.
Alexander Graham Bell – 1847-1922